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What Is True Love?

Many young couples would say their feelings are true love. But are they? Does the Bible offer guidance to understand what true love really is?

by Jerold Aust

Imagine you were the guest on a talk show and the topic was love and marriage. How would you answer the question, "What is true love?"

Love and marriage can seem to be a complicated and sometimes iffy pursuit. About half of all modern marriages end in divorce, and many couples ignore marriage altogether in favor of living together—at least until somebody better comes along.

A job description for a husband and wife, written by the other partner, might include the following: The husband must be a sensitive lover, lawn specialist, master mechanic, carpenter, electrician, plumber and all-around handyman with the body of a professional athlete and the face of a movie star. The wife is expected to be a gourmet cook, domestic superwoman and fellow sports fan and to dress and look like a supermodel.

No marriage license comes with a descriptive set of instructions, yet because of our media addiction, modern marital expectations demand more while delivering less.

With this as starters, how in the world can any potential couple know what true love is, let alone find it?

Misconceptions about marriage

Misconceptions about marriage can create a destructive approach toward a good relationship. Let's test your marital mindset with a true-or-false quiz. Consider the following actions as they relate to a happy marriage.

Couples who seem to have happy marriages:
T-F. Never argue.
T-F. Do not depend on each other.
T-F. Both want sex equally.
T-F. Always have their needs met.
T-F. Share all responsibilities equally.
T-F. Are never lonely.
T-F. Always agree.
T-F. Think alike on most things.
T-F. Always perceive the other's needs.
T-F. Always resolve their problems.

Think you knew the answers? The fact is, none of these statements is true.

Each of these statements represents an area many men and women assume must be met to experience marital happiness. But this is far from the truth. Studies conducted in the last few years about true love and lasting, satisfying relationships have helped us understand what works in marriage and what doesn't.

Although it isn't clear what the result would be if a couple did indeed meet all these criteria perfectly, research indicates that differences are important for marriage. They allow for individual uniqueness and present areas for relational growth, which is a necessity for bonding in marriage.

Put more succinctly, variety can be the spice of life, as the old adage goes.

Unrealistic media models

Life as we know it is not perfect. We don't get everything we want when—or how—we want it.

This is a little-known key to understanding true love. Generally, first love is often infatuation—and if it remains infatuation, it doesn't last. Standing at the altar, supercharged with infatuation, doesn't qualify as mature true love, though it may be a beginning. In most cases, true love has predictable cycles.

Consider the models of love and marriage that novels, television and movies provide us. The best-selling book (and later popular movie) Bridges of Madison County was hailed as the love story of the century. But since when did a brief encounter that ended with the participants separating and pining for one another qualify as the love story of the century? The author and movie producers were plainly pandering to human passions.

Movies like Titanic, The English Patient, Casablanca, Message in a Bottle and Dr. Zhivago—all acclaimed love stories—depict couples who never married and lived together as husband and wife. In these films not one of the couples gets past the sexual or infatuation stages.

What do such movies (and books) tell us about ourselves? They tell us that we are far more interested in falling in love than remaining there or understanding what true love is really all about!

What are some of our common misconceptions about love? They include the following:
• A deep longing for someone and great desire to be with that person is true love.
• If love dies, you can't get it back.
• There is one and only one "soul mate" for each and every person.
• Love is all about emotional chemistry.
• If a relationship is rocky, it means you picked the wrong mate.
• If you happen to meet the right person, you will automatically live happily ever after.

All of these are dangerously misguided concepts, yet they are promoted incessantly in popular movies, music, books and television. It's no wonder so many marriages and relationships run into trouble!

Where in all these misconceptions do you find that a good marriage requires sacrifice and service on the part of both partners? Why is the truth about marriages based on true love so distorted?

Although in many cases it may serve as a beginning, infatuation is not true mature love. A relationship that has been neglected can be restored, as many couples can affirm. When one loses a loving mate in death, he or she might well find another and enjoy another truly loving relationship.

The chemistry that fires infatuation between two people does not always endure in marriage. And it's a myth that there is a "one and only" person in the world just right for you and that finding him or her is simply a matter of luck. When a relationship goes on the rocks, it's rarely because the husband and wife picked the wrong mate. This is adolescent thinking, taught and fostered by the media.

Infatuation versus true love

Accidentally "falling" in love is often characterized as the pinnacle of human existence and experience. Authors, actors, scriptwriters, painters, sculptors and poets have all contributed to this mythic oxymoron.

Falling is an accident, not a mature choice. Perhaps that's why the root meaning of infatuation is "to be foolish or stupid." There's a vast difference between infatuation's temporary chemistry and the mature, true love that should develop over time between a couple. While infatuation may be a first step, it must grow through constant, sensitive, outgoing attention to become lasting true love.

Falling in love can be described in the vernacular as "puppy love" rather than true love. And regrettably, age is no stranger to this type of infatuation.

As much as one might wish to think that his or her infatuation is the real thing, we should understand that infatuation is not unique to any one person or experience. It has happened to people the world over and from time immemorial (see "Infatuation and the Human Body").

After infatuation, then what?

Infatuation is but a beginning. The pleasurable feelings it creates are the Creator's way to stimulate a man and woman to grow interested in one another, which can then lead them to marry, procreate and build secure and happy families. At this early stage couples make their relationship a priority; later they learn to accept differences and show each other appreciation.

When infatuation ends and when the honeymoon is over, often couples will face a crossroads. The journey to ever-deepening love can either really pick up or start to end. Those couples who continue to give careful attention to each other will enjoy and appreciate their marriage trip to ongoing happiness. Those who don't will find they have little motivation to maintain their relationship once the infatuation wears off.

A number of good books contribute immensely to accurately identifying true love. They delineate the stages of marriage, the differences between sexual attraction, infatuation, connectedness and the mechanics that provide for true love. However, they do not fully define true love as it is presented by God in the Bible.

True love comes from God. His Word describes Him as love personified. "God is love," we are told in 1 John 4:8, 16 (emphasis added throughout).

The Greek word used for that divine, godly love is agape. It refers to an outgoing, selfless love, as opposed to a selfish feeling or craving. (Agape love should not be confused with the two other Greek words translated "love" in the Bible—eros, which means sexual love, and phileo, which means to have fondness for or endearment).

While God wants us to extend His divine love to all human beings, we should apply that kind of selfless, outgoing love most of all in the closest of all human relationships—the marriage union.

Learning the meaning of godly love

Jesus Christ demonstrated how to show true love. He exemplified God's love for mankind. He showed true love through His focus on self-sacrifice, the seeking of the well-being and benefit of others at one's own expense. That is true love!

Christianity has long taught love, as have various other religions. However, generally people have thought that they should love only those they considered worthy of being loved. But this is not true godly love.

Romans 5:8 describes godly love in action: "But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." God loved all mankind—you and me included—so much that He gave up what He loved most, His Son Jesus Christ, for our sakes (John 3:16).

He loved us not because we were lovable or worthy of that love, but because He is the personification of true love. So the greatness of godly love, true love, has been demonstrated by God Himself.

And that love is based on standards of behavior that show concern for the well-being of others over our own selfish wants and desires. God even gives us His Spirit to enable us to exhibit true godly love toward others. Through His commands and laws He defines the kind of behavior that shows love for others.

As the apostle Paul explained: "For the commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery,' 'You shall not murder,' 'You shall not steal,' 'You shall not bear false witness,' 'You shall not covet,' and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law" (Romans 13:9-10).

It requires humility before Almighty God to accept His definition and conditions of love: "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome" (1 John 5:3).

God's commandments and true love

Authors of books about love rarely understand the principle that true love translates into keeping God's commandments. Consider biblical commentator John Stott's keen analysis of 1 John 5:3: "Love for God has a second inescapable consequence, namely obedience. If we truly love God, we not only love his children, but also find ourselves carrying out his commands ...

"Love for God is not an emotional experience so much as a moral commitment. Indeed, whether shown to God or human beings, agape is always practical and active. Love for our brothers and sisters expresses itself 'with actions and in truth,' and especially in sacrificial service (3:17-18); love for God in carrying out His commands. Jesus said the same thing about the meaning of love for Himself (Jn. 14:15, 21)" (The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, 2000, Vol. 19, p. 175-176, emphasis in original).

Regrettably, few Bible instructors teach the seamless connection between God's commandments and true love because they've been taught and influenced to believe that God's commandments are largely arbitrary or outdated in our modern world.

Satan the destroyer, the avowed enemy of humanity and of marital happiness, is the primary opponent of God's true love (1 Peter 5:8; 2 Corinthians 4:3-4; Revelation 9:11; 12:9). One of his purposes is to destroy the family unit, and in so doing to wreak havoc on human relationships and societies.

Symptomatic of this are increasing rates of divorce and couples foregoing marriage altogether in favor of simply living together. But without true love in a marriage (based on keeping God's commandments, 1 John 5:3), family happiness has at best a shallow and fragile root system.

However, there is hope. God's Spirit can enlighten our minds and warm our hearts toward Him and toward other human beings.

And it certainly can improve our marriage relationships. Through His Spirit, God conveys His true love to a husband and wife. (If you would like to learn more about the transforming power of God's Spirit, request our free booklet Transforming Your Life: The Process of Conversion or contact our office nearest you. Also, we offer free ministerial counsel if you so desire.)

You can enjoy true love

True love, like life itself, experiences normal, predictable stages. The attraction between a man and a woman which God put within us can lead to the start of a strong emotional bond between husband and wife. Beyond this stage lies the joy of sacrificing, serving and sharing life and a spiritual bond together. Ultimately, true love leads to developing a lifelong friendship with our mate.

Realistically, those who experience true love also experience occasional disagreements, will desire romance at different times, occasionally don't have their needs met, are sometimes lonely, may disagree on important issues, sometimes misperceive their partner's needs and don't always resolve their problems. That's part of life between two imperfect human beings. That's marriage. That's reality. And resolving these differences successfully is part of what makes up true, lasting love.

True love grows through caring for each other in a selfless, and sometimes self-sacrificing, manner where each spouse freely gives of himself or herself. When we are on our deathbeds, will we wish that we had spent more time trying to make money rather than having spent more time with our mates and families? Far more often, the regret is for not having placed enough emphasis on our family relationships.

Husbands and wives, tell your beloved that you love him or her—daily. And in other ways communicate your love to each another. Cultivate your relationship with your mate. Then thank God for giving you a loving partner to share your life.

Remember that God is the author of true, unselfish love. If you want true love, go to God for it, for He can give you the power and desire to put into practice the little things in marriage that constitute true love. He can help you develop more outgoing concern for the needs of your husband or wife rather than concentrating solely on your own feelings and desires.

If you do, you can enjoy true love. True love comes to those who are willing to make their personal wants and desires secondary in giving of themselves to their beloved, lifelong marriage partner.

Don't expect the fullness of true love overnight. True love grows as a husband and wife learn how to better meet the needs and desires of the other. True love matures through living experiences.

May your marriage reap the lasting benefits of true love!


©2002 United Church of God, an International Association
Used with permission.

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